English Catholic priest and author Robert Hugh Benson was one of the more eccentric and gifted scions of the family that also produced E.F. Benson (of ghost story and Mapp and Lucia fame) and A.C. Benson (author of “Land of Hope and Glory”). Son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, he left the Anglican priesthood to become a Catholic in 1903, and was appointed a supernumerary private chamberlain to the Pope in 1911. A prolific author, he published numerous novels and devotional works after his conversion, including the early dystopian science fiction/horror novel Lord of the World. He also produced ghost and supernatural horror stories, some of which appear in A Mirror of Shalott (1907) in a highly polished example of the “club story” collection, where a group of narrators get together in a club-style setting to tell their tales – though in this case the club is an informal gathering of Catholic priests of various nationalities in Rome.

You’d expect these stories to be homiletic illustrations of points of Catholic dogma, and some don’t disappoint on that score, but others are anything but predictable expositions of doctrine, and present the divine as something that really passes all human understanding, leaving only enigmas to ponder over. As Monsignor Maxwell says in the prologue, “Half at least of the stories one hears have no point—no reason.” And, he continues, “this spiritual world is crammed full of energy and movement and affairs. . . . We know practically nothing of it all, except those few main principles which are called the Catholic Faith—nothing else. What conceivable right have we to demand that the little glimpses that we seem to get sometimes of the spiritual world are given us for our benefit or information.”

That’s a point of view that can square quite nicely with much modern weird and strange fiction. Also, tales of spiritual terror and crisis stay relevant in a way that encounters with ghostly grey ladies do not, and several of Benson’s stories actually manage to be as disturbing as any ever told by M.R. James, especially thanks to his fairly dry style, which reads as far more current and less florid than that of his contemporary and fellow Catholic G.K. Chesterton. The opening “Monsignor Maxwell’s Tale,” for instance, has enough desolation in it to recall Thomas Ligotti, while “Father Girdlestone’s Tale” contains a meticulous description of contemplative practices that progressively become tainted by malevolent forces. Quite a number of others are straight ghost stories, but again, often cryptic and without an obvious moral, as in “Father Brent’s Tale” of phantom Cornish ships. Even those that are doctrinal, such as “The Father Rector’s Tale,” can be every bit as disturbing as they are consoling.

A Mirror of Shalott hasn’t made it onto Project Gutenberg yet (though other works of his have), but it is available at Archive.org. That version has the usual Archive.org typos and texual problems, and one kind enthusiast has put up somewhat cleaner EPUB, Kindle, and PDF versions of the book here for free download. Enjoy.

TeleRead Rating: 3.5 e-readers out of 5


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